4.12 / December 2009


Tracy didn’t like working nights at the gas station, too many crazies and stupid kids, although she was essentially her own boss for the eight hour shift and had little to do.

She reminded herself of those perks when the burly guy in the gray hoodie walked in shortly before midnight, setting her heart racing. He barged into the store with dark stains on the front of his sweatshirt and a lit cigarette hanging from his meaty mouth, right next to his three silver lip piercings, his white-washed jeans belted around his fat thighs. His face had a blue tinge, and she didn’t think it was from the shadow of his hood either. She felt a flicker of recognition, and foreboding.

Tracy asked him to kill the cigarette, her voice humiliatingly meek. He ignored her, moving through the aisles like a rhinoceros. She warned him he would set off the smoke alarm, if not one of the gas pumps.

He whirled around. “Don’t you tell me what to do, girl.”

The way he said “girl” she felt smacked. He’d been in here before, that night a week back with the other scumbag that had spit chewing gum in her face. They’d ran out right after, laughing. She gripped the edge of the counter, trying to stop her trembling, and checked the security cameras, confirming they were on. In the three months she’d worked at the station, she had already hit the alarm five times. After the last incident, the whole “I swear it looked like a gun in his pants,” fiasco, her boss told her in no uncertain terms that unless someone had a knife to her throat he didn’t want her hitting any “motherfucking alarm,’ and messing-up his insurance or pissing off the local cops. “Nobody likes paperwork, you hear?”

The guy grabbed a six-pack of beer from the fridge, and managed to knock over some cans. The cans thudded, thud, thud, thud, rolling back and forth on the floor. He called her over. She stood rooted to the spot. He shouted again, making her flinch. She moved to the fridge, feeling like her ankles were chained together, like a little girl again going to her bully-father.

He pointed at the scatter of beers on the dull, once green, linoleum. “Pick them up.”

She held his fiery gaze. “That’s not my mess.”

He raised his fist. She drew back, yelping.

“Get,” he said between bared, nicotine-stained teeth.

She bent, lifting the cans quickly, steeling herself against the blow to the back of her head she felt sure was coming.

“That’s it, that’s the girl.”

She straightened, holding the cans to her like babies, encouraged by his praise.

He ordered her to put the cans back in the fridge, and moved behind her. She obliged, her insides turning to sludge.

He shuffled to the counter, placing the six-pack of beer on top of the stack of newspapers. She returned behind the counter, liking the distance between them. Her eyes scanned out front. She prayed the driver at Pump One would notice something and come inside or call the police.

Her hand reached for the cash register, telling herself it’d all be over soon. He would leave or help would come and she’d get to tell her roommates an exciting story tomorrow.

“Not so fast.”

Her fingers froze on the cash register’s cool plastic buttons.

“I’m not finished yet.” He dropped his cigarette butt, and stubbed it out with his blackened sneaker.

The car at Pump One pulled away, making her want to cry. She tried to work some saliva back into her mouth, managing to croak. “What else?”

He reached inside his back pocket, pulling out cigarette skins and a roll of foil.

Tracy forced a smile. “You can’t do that here.”

He pulled his hood tighter around his bloated face. “Can’t I?”

She tried to sound conspiratorial. “I think you’d better go. The cops are always patrolling here.”

He dragged on his joint, and gestured it toward her. She shook her head.

His smile had an edge like she’d never seen. “You are a good girl, aren’t you? A real good girl.”

She pinned her smile to her face. “Just keep humoring him,” she thought. “He’ll leave, and I’ll start looking for another job first thing the next morning.” She would waitress—better money in that line of work anyways. It was just that she’d never been much of a people-person, and wasn’t quick on her feet, or all that good at thinking of too many things at once. She wasn’t good at much of anything really.

He slapped the counter, making her jump. “You going to join me or what?”

“I can’t, I have real bad asthma.” Her mother hadn’t wanted her to move out here to San Francisco, saying the sea air wouldn’t be good for her. Her mother hadn’t wanted her working the gas station either, said something just like this would happen.

He laughed, making a “whee” sound. “You got one of those inhaler things?”

She nodded.

His face hardened, his eyes like something dead. “Let me see it.”

She reached inside her purse, searching for several minutes before she found it, all the while trying to hide her wallet from him. He grabbed the inhaler, startling her, and pushed its tip inside his mouth. She felt like he was putting her in there.

She hid her disgust, thinking she’d die before she’d ever put the inhaler in her mouth again.

He pumped the inhaler, twice, three times, four.

“I don’t think you should—”

He pulled the inhaler from his lips, silver strings of his saliva strung to it like the threads of a cobweb, whooping. He danced about in a circle, shouting about how his chest felt open, how he felt huge, how nothing had ever set him going like this.

He ripped open the cardboard beer container, offering her one, tears of condensation sliding down the bottle, making tracks.

She knew not to refuse. They twisted off the beer caps, and dropped them to the floor. They made a tinkling, sad sound. He drank, chugging, and talked about music and movies, but she couldn’t understand what he was saying, like he wasn’t using real words, like this was all a game. He grabbed her shirt, and pulled her to him, making her cry out, that same sound her roommate’s cat made whenever he hurt. She willed somebody to come into the store, anybody.

He made to kiss her, but then pushed her away. “You got a mustache.”

Her hand rushed to her upper lip.

His eyes raked the shelves about them, finding the razors, grabbing a packet.

She jumped for the alarm, fuck paperwork, but he caught her arm, twisting it up and behind her back. He marched her to the restroom, and pushed her inside.

“Don’t please—”

He threw the packet of razors, hitting her face. “Shave that mess off.”

She covered her face with the crook of her arm, gagging at the stink in the small space, trying not to cry. “Please—”

He shouted again.

Her hands shaking, she freed the razor from its covering, and splashed water on her face. The soap slipped out of her hands, and she had to chase it around the filthy sink.

“Get on with it, girl.”

“My name’s Tracy.”

“I don’t give a fuck.”

Something spread inside her like a black spill, a sense that this was the confrontation she’d been working toward her whole life, this the one show-down she wasn’t going to walk away from, or bow her head to, or smile and swallow down everything she really wanted to say and do.

“My name’s Tracy.”

He pushed his face close to hers, his beer-cannabis breath fouling her skin. “Excuse me?”

“Call me Tracy.”

He grabbed the razor, touching it to her face. “I know what I’ll trace.”

She closed her eyes, whimpering.

He threw the razor in the sink; it sounded like something breaking. “Now shave.”

She soaped and shaved her upper lip, looking into the mirror for the least amount of time necessary, the fluorescent ceiling light warm on her head. On the last stroke, she nicked herself.

“Stupid girl,” he said, hooking his hand under her chin and pulling her toward him. He stuck out his thick red tongue, its back caked in dirty white, and licked across her mouth and up under her nose. Then he kissed her hard, his lip piercings bruising her mouth. She tasted salt from his sweat, from her blood.

He pulled back his lips, showing more of his brown teeth and pale gums, his eyes crazy-wide. “I’m a vampire.”

He pushed her against the wall. She hit the back of her head, sending a jolt of pain through her. He moved toward her. She gritted her teeth, shaking, and charged at him, kneeing his groin hard, and ramming her three fingers into his left eye. He spun about, his hands at his eye. He roared.

She raced past him, out of the restroom, out of the store, into the dark street. Someone shouted, not him she didn’t think. He was still inside. She ran, coughing, struggling to breathe. Her chest tightened. Her skin stuck to her ribs. Wheezing, sweating, she pictured her lungs flapping like the wings of a frightened bird, her airways shrinking, shutting down. Even as her legs gave way and she sank onto the sidewalk, she felt the thrum of triumph. She’d gotten away. It would feel so good to tell her mama, to make her proud. All she needed now was to breathe, breathe big.